‘Frankenstein food’: meanings and origin

The colloquial derogatory expression Frankenstein food denotes genetically modified food.

The expression Frankenstein food refers to Frankenstein; Or, The Modern Prometheus (London: Printed for Lackington, Hughes, Harding, Mavor, & Jones, 1818), by the British novelist Mary Shelley (née Godwin – 1797-1851), in which Victor Frankenstein constructs a human monster and endows it with life.
—Cf. also
‘Frankenstein’s monster’: meaning and origin.

Before Frankenstein food arose in the sense of genetically modified food, members of Weight Watchers (a U.S. company offering weight-loss programmes) had been using this expression in the sense of food one is addicted to. According to Biting Back, the image is of “the evil food which triggers you to overindulge and turns you into an irrational face-stuffing food monster”—which means that, here, the name Frankenstein designates the creature, not the creator. The earliest occurrence that I have found of this earlier use of the expression Frankenstein food is from the following reply to ‘T.M.’, in Weight Watchers News and Views, by Jan Schonwetter, Area Director, Weight Watchers of the Upper Midwest, published in The St. Cloud Daily Times (Saint Cloud, Minnesota, USA) of Saturday 11th September 1971:

Dear Jan: I can’t resist French fries. What can I do? T.M., New Hope.
Everyone has “Frankenstein foods,” and since you have a flair for the French, try baking drained French-style green beans salted on a cookie sheet for about 12 minutes at 400 degrees. You’ll have reasonable facsimile and lose weight, too.

Before the expression Frankenstein food arose in the sense of genetically modified food, the name Frankenstein had occasionally been used attributively to refer to industrially processed food. The following are three occurrences of this attributive use of Frankenstein:

1-: A certain Carol Sena used the expression Frankenstein food technologists in the following letter to the Editor, published in The Herald Statesman (Yonkers, New York, USA) of Wednesday 17th December 1969:

The commission appointed to study the causes and prevention of violence has neglected not only the vital question of moral and spiritual values, but also the effect of poor nutrition and chemically-induced brain alteration on human behavior.
In 1946 it was discovered that dogs fed bread made from flour bleached white with a nerve gas named, Agene, developed “running fits” or “canine hysteria”. Agene was then outlawed—only to be replaced with chlorine dioxide, an even more dangerous gas. Nerve gases, which attack the nerve centers of the brain that govern anger, fear, etc., are prohibited in WAR!—but the FDA thinks it all right to have them incorporated into the nation’s food.
EVERY ITEM of food we consume is raped of nutrients, treacherously bombarded with poisons, injected with hormones and antibiotics, chemically sweetened, dyed, cured, thickened and flavored.
For 20 years the FDA—that great consumer protection agency—sanctioned the use of DDT before it acknowledged that DDT was indeed a dangerous poison. What, in the name of humanity, took them so long?
Are these poisons in our food and the missing nutrients in the American diet related to the fact that 250,000 infants are born every year with serious defects; that cases of mental illness, premature degenerative diseases and allergies are increasing; that tempers are flaring and manslaughters committed over a personal offense that was once met with a swift indignant turn of the heel; that uncivil disobedience is raging in the streets of these dis-United States?
BREAD, the staff of life, is robbed of 25 health-building vitamins and minerals; the experts return but four—and have the colossal nerve to mislable [sic] it “ENRICHED”. A flour bug—although not university-educated—avoids the flour with which this bread is made. HE knows!
Instead of eliminating the CAUSE of our troubles—we organize frantic, fund-raising campaigns to establish and maintain special agencies to treat the effect; we buy bigger health and life insurance policies; trust in the almighty needle, the pill and the potion; escape into pleasure by mischief and even return to the degeneracy of the Middle Ages by stocking up on “lucky charms” in the vain hope they will deliver us from the meloncholy [sic] misfortunes we bring upon ourselves.
This civilization is sick and dying because it has been feeding on physical (and mental) poisons—generously provided by Bakewellian cattle farmers *, Frankenstein food technologists, the grasping lords of corporations and their clever public-relations men who bamboozle the homemaker into believing she is purchasing a nutritious product.

[* This may refer to the English agriculturalist Robert Bakewell (1725-1795), who was the first to implement systematic selective breeding of livestock.]

2-: John Hutchinson used the expression Frankenstein food factories in his column Wine and Roses, published in the Enterprise-Journal (South San Francisco, California, USA) of Friday 29th September 1972:

Let’s have lunch—but where? For a great many people pressed by time the ugly answer is one of those horrible huge franchise Frankenstein food factories that are cancering the country, where people are served a meal resembling a dead TV dinner. It’s taste bud pollution. I was discussing this with Vern Berkewicz, the owner of Vern’s in Daly City, this week. He shakes his head and says, “We serve a larger portion of better quality food and we still can’t compete with them. People will go for that big, half-million dollar restaurant and not care about the inferior food.” These big outfits also are able to buy the best locations, buy their food at cheaper prices, and take advantage of corporation tax breaks.

3-: The expression Frankenstein food horror occurred in the following from the Evening Post (Reading, Berkshire, England) of Saturday 5th May 1973:

Beware of Frankenstein ‘food horror’

Artificial foods could produce new and frightening medical horrors which would make Frankenstein “pale into insignificance,” a conference was warned today.
“How long before we have a nightmare world of crocheted cauliflower, knitted kippers or embroidered escalopes,” asked the president of the British Naturopathic and Osteopathic Association at its conference in Eastbourne.
Mr Leonard Glazebrook said it was a shock to read of a new artificial “ready-spun, non-shrink, frozen meat” which was already being widely used.
“We must beware of the long-termed effect of factory-made food.
“Man has evolved slowly with the help of natural foods over tens of thousands of years, and any introduction of artificial food into his system may produce effects we cannot halt, damage we cannot undo.
“New cancers, perhaps. New stress complaints. New nervous disorders. New and frightening malfunctions which will make Frankenstein pale into insignificance.”

The earliest occurrences that I have found of the expression Frankenstein food in the sense of genetically modified food are as follows, in chronological order:

1-: From the following letter, published in Newsday (Long Island, New York, USA) of Thursday 2nd June 1994:

New Lab-Fresh Foods

The Food and Drug Administration is unleashing genetically engineered tomatoes into our food supply. I would rather the FDA unleash a tomato that tastes good [“New Tomatoes No Taste Treat,” May 25]. I don’t want to pay a premium for another bland tomato. Somehow I just can’t salivate at the thought of a “new” tomato created in a laboratory by someone wearing a white coat.
Frankenstein food is already with us. Just add genetic tomatoes to the list, along with irradiated strawberries; BHT milk; antibiotic-laced, hormone pumped-up chickens, cows and pigs; waxed, pesticide-sprayed fruit and vegetable—the great American feast. Our food supply has become a stranger to us, something we no longer see as vital, alive and growing. It is wrapped in plastic and neatly displayed on a shelf. We have become dependent upon chemicals, science and the FDA to nourish us.
Stranger still, the FDA doesn’t even require manipulated food to be labeled.

Mary Ann Parisi
Port Jefferson Station.

2– : From Contents, published in The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Saturday 24th September 1994:

Colin Spencer bites into Frankenstein’s food 58

Colin Spencer’s article, titled Designer genes, began as follows, page 58 of The Guardian (London and Manchester, England) of Saturday 24th September 1994:

What is going on in the lab? Genetically engineered food is ready for the shops, but have we got the stomach for it?
It is the raw material of countless plots for thriller writers. Genetic engineering: these two words conjure up a malevolent world. A world of Frankenstein’s children, the brood spawned from scientists who play at being God, knitting feverishly like guillotine ghouls, but this time with DNA molecules.

3-: From the Evening Standard (London, England) of Friday 30th December 1994:

Gene science halts the ketchup rot

FOOD EXPERTS are expected to give the go-ahead for genetically engineered tomato sauce early in the new year. British seed firm Zeneca wants a Government licence to sell tomato products such as paste and ketchup which have been modified against rotting.
The advisory Novel Foods and Processes Committee is expected to tell Agriculture Minister William Waldegrave the plan should be approved.
DNA science, which transfers genes from one crop to another, could lead to a range of genetically modified foods, including potatoes and bananas, in UK shops. Engineered tomatoes have already been given US approval.
Zeneca, one of the world leaders in the field, says engineered food lasts longer but taste is not affected.
But not everyone is happy with what has been dubbed “Frankenstein Food”.
The Co-Op has already said it will not stock genetically engineered tomato products because it does not think they are any better than normal versions.
It thinks that all genetically engineered produce should be clearly labelled—even though the Government has said that is not necessary.

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